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Republican Presidential Hopefuls Bash Bush and Roast Hillary at CPAC

The annual gathering of American conservative grassroots activists is widely considered the launching pad for the next phase of the Republican primary.

by Jessica Murphy
Feb 28 2015, 10:00pm

Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

Conservative firebrand radio talk show host Laura Ingraham strode onto a convention center stage in a Washington, DC suburb Friday and announced that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton should just run on the same ticket in 2016.

"What difference does it make?" she asked the early morning crowd gathered for the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), billed as the largest annual gathering of American conservative grassroots activists.

"Clush, 2016!" she said to laughter.

At this year's CPAC, Bush-bashing became a sport on par with roasting Hillary and taking jabs at President Barack Obama. The 2015 edition of the three-day conservative confab is widely considered the launching pad for the next phase of the Republican primary.

Related: We traveled around the world speaking to people about guns, gun control, and differences in global attitudes on firearms.

Republicans are fresh off a midterm slam-dunk and their odds of taking back the White House are better than they've been in years. So with the party in the very early throes of that crowded, wide-open primary race, almost all the presumptive GOP hopefuls made the pilgrimage to CPAC to woo the party's grassroots.

While getting support from the estimated 9,000 attendees doesn't mean a contender is a shoe-in to be their next standard-bearer, it offers a gauge of where they rank with the party's base.

That included Bush, who took the stage to a mix of cheers and jeers.

"I'll mark you down as neutral," the former Florida governor told booing audience members.

'I think our generation is looking for new, fresh optimistic vision and ideas — and a new face.'

Bush swayed some of the few hundred attendees packed into the conference hall by standing firm on his stance on red meat political issues such as immigration.

"There is no plan to deport 11 million people," he said, calling for "a path to legal status" for undocumented immigrants.

An attempt by a rival camp to stage a massive walkout during Bush's appearance fizzled.

Ethan Wallace, a North Carolina delegate sporting a "Jeb '16" sticker, said he was disappointed by the anti-Bush mudslinging.

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"I feel he knew that half of the people in that room hated him, just off the bat, hated him," Wallace said, adding that — despite the sticker — he still wasn't sold on any one candidate.

Still, he sees Bush as a formidable and importantly, electable, candidate.

"I don't think he's as conservative as people would like, but in the end you've got to be able to win, that's the short of it," he said.

Bush, since announcing earlier this year that he was actively considering a run, has demonstrated a fundraising prowess that, combined with his name recognition, could rival the impressive Clinton political machine.

Many at CPAC, however, think enough is enough.

Brett Kulbis, a conservative activist from Hawaii, told VICE News that he isn't a fan.

"Sure, he was a good governor at the time, but I think it's time for some new blood," he said. "And not to sound cliché, but no more Bushes. No more Clintons. We need to go another direction."

Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, the right-wing equivalent of MoveOn.org, said it would be a mistake for either party to nominate a candidate from the Bush and Clinton political dynasties.

"The Democrats would suffer as well as the Republicans. I think our generation is looking for new, fresh optimistic vision and ideas — and a new face," Kirk told VICE News.

And while Bush describes himself as a "reform-minded conservative," the CPAC crowd skews more Senator Ted Cruz than the establishment — even as most speakers struck similar themes.

Related: Prominent Georgia Republican with anti-gay past criticizes 'religious liberty' bills. 

Favorite topics included assertions that Obama is a failed president weak in the face of the threat of the Islamic State, Russia and Iran; calling Clinton is a big government Democrat beholden to Washington insiders; and statements that Washington is broken and it's time for bold new ideas.

In his speech Thursday, Cruz, a Texas Republican, warned that each GOP hopeful who came to court the crowd would tout their conservative bona fides.

(In 2012, Mitt Romney defended his own credentials in front of the right-wing activists, calling himself "severely conservative.")

"Everyone of them will say: 'you betcha, hoo-diddly, I'm conservative as all get out," Cruz said.

"And so I would encourage all the men and women gathered here today — demand action, not talk."

Senator Rand Paul's camp, meanwhile, had the loudest, most visible, and youngest contingent in a sea of activists plastered with political stickers, campaign buttons, and candidate t-shirts. The contingent worked to propel the libertarian-leaning freshman senator to the top of the event's annual straw poll for the third consecutive year.

"Will you stand with me? Will you fight for freedom?" the Kentucky politician asked the crowd to chants of "President Paul!"

Matt Batzel, national executive director with American Majority, which focuses on political grassroots organizing, told VICE News both Cruz and Paul are adept at mobilizing supporters.

'We have a job to do — and that job is not just to find the guy who can shout freedom the loudest.'

Wisconsin-based Batzel was working on the conference sidelines running workshops on digital campaign tactics Republicans have rushed to develop after getting walloped by Obama's tech-savvy team in recent elections.

"There are a lot of efforts from Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, to build their brand and a following that can do well," he said.

And he pointed to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as one of the few in the early field with broad appeal.

"When he wins, he's winning independents," Batzel said. "He's one of the most electable candidates potentially running on this side of the aisle."

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Ami Francisco, staffing the Young Republican National Federation booth in the exhibitor's hall, told VICE News she liked Paul's policies but understood the "practicality" of Bush.

"The Republican party really is a big tent," she said. "Even if we don't always agree, at the end of the day, whoever the candidate is, that's who we coalesce behind. Get them elected, that's the important thing."

Early in the conference, one of the staunchest conservatives in Congress, Utah Senator Mike Lee, challenged the audience with that reminder: When the dust settles in the primary, they need a candidate who can win the White House.

"We have a job to do — and that job is not just to find the guy who can shout freedom the loudest," he said.

"If that's what they reward with cheers and standing ovations, and straw poll votes, than that's all that we as conservatives will ever get," Lee added. "Talking points and platitudes and empty promises. We can't let that happen. Republican presidential candidates in 2016 are only going to be as good as conservatives demand them to be in 2015."

Follow Jessica Murphy on Twitter: @Murphy_Jessica_